Prime Minister Narendra Modi with Former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, Congress President Rahul Gandhi, Senior BJP leader LK Advani, and other leaders from the BJP and Congress, on December 13, 2017. (Photograph: PTI)

Three Reasons A ‘Khichdi’ Coalition In 2019 Could Be A Political Delicacy 

BloombergQuintOpinion

Khichdi, a watery Indian dish prepared from rice and lentils, is the gruel of convalescence for people with upset tummies. But when cooked with a few exotic condiments, it becomes a delicacy.

Khichdi is also a colloquial description of weak coalition governments. The phrase acquired wide currency during 1996-97 when unstable United Front regimes were formed during a sickly interregnum in India’s democracy. Today it’s back in vogue, with several pundits wondering if the 2019 polls shall throw up another khichdi coalition.

But I have a somewhat different take. Yes, it could be a khichdi government, but one that is a political delicacy. And yes, the numbers in Parliament could be almost identical to 1996, but the adhesive chemistry among the coalition partners will be vastly different.

So Let’s Begin With A Primer On What Actually Happened In 1996…

It was a most unusual time. Prime Minister Narasimha Rao had just completed a full term, despite being a minority government all through the five years. Inexplicably, he had become an adversary of the Nehru-Gandhi family, despite his earlier loyalty towards Indira and Rajiv, the two PMs he had served.

Prime Minister Shri P.V. Narasimha Rao releasing an one rupee commemorative coin in New Delhi on May 21, 1992. (Photograph: PIB)<a href="http://pibphoto.nic.in/photo//l-images/l2004052113.jpg"><i><br></i></a>
Prime Minister Shri P.V. Narasimha Rao releasing an one rupee commemorative coin in New Delhi on May 21, 1992. (Photograph: PIB)

Rao’s reign was riddled with contradictions. If he boldly liberated India’s state-dominated economy, he cynically allowed Babri Masjid to be demolished. If he courageously held polls in terror afflicted Punjab to install Chief Minister Beant Singh, he fell out with veteran colleagues like Arjun Singh, ND Tiwari, GK Moopanar and Madhavrao Scindia, to splinter the party. His dalliance with suspicious characters like Chandraswami was in sharp contrast to his erudite intellect. He was (later) criminally prosecuted for corruption charges, but had the gumption to reinvent India’s foreign policy, reaching out to America, China, and East Asia. He may have gotten re-elected, but for the Jain hawala (laundering) scandal that erupted a few months before the polls, revealing $33 million in bribes to several politicians.

So the Congress got thrashed in the 11th general election, hitting its lowest tally of 140 seats in Lok Sabha. But ironically, nobody won as the house was completely hung. The BJP notched its highest mark of 161, emerging as the largest single party, but over 100 seats short of a majority. There was much drama as it accepted the President’s invitation to form the government but flunked in Parliament, forcing Prime Minister Vajpayee to resign within 13 days.

A cabal of several parties was hastily stitched into a coalition called the United Front; HD Deve Gowda of Karnataka, leader of the 46-member Janata Dal, became the Prime Minister. It was a spectacularly disparate cabinet with a Communist Home Minister and an estranged Congressman as Finance Minister. It was supported ‘from the outside’ by the Congress, now led by the maverick Sitaram Kesri of Bihar.

But Kesri was a ‘man in a hurry’. He fancied himself as the Prime Minister. Within 11 months, he knocked Gowda out of office and installed a former Congressman, Inder Kumar Gujral, as his successor. In another eight months, even Gujral was toppled, and the country hurtled towards its 12th general election in less than two years.

Two khichdi coalitions had collapsed, forever tainting the traditional dish with political opprobrium!  
Prime Minister Inder Kumer Gujral with Congress President Sitaram Kesri, in 1997. (Photograph: Indian National Congress website)
Prime Minister Inder Kumer Gujral with Congress President Sitaram Kesri, in 1997. (Photograph: Indian National Congress website)

Also read: 2019 Versus 1996: Lessons For Rahul Gandhi From Sitaram Kesri’s Congress

Empirical Evidence Shows A Similar Three-Way Split In 2019

In an eerie replay of 1996, the BJP could become the single largest party with 180-200 seats, the Congress could come in second with around 130-150, and a clutch of regional parties could dice the remaining 200 seats into tinier morsels.

But this is also where the story could diverge from 1996; in fact, I reckon there are three reasons why 2019 could cook a khichdi that is a political delicacy!

One: Modi Strikes Dahshat (Extreme Fear) In Opponents

Modi’s take-no-prisoners style of politics is a unique cementing force for otherwise squabbling opposition parties. If they don’t defeat him, they could be obliterated. He campaigns with colossal energy. He is what the Americans call a ‘closer’, charging beyond the last mile of campaigning to single-handedly snatch victories from the jaws of defeat. He can accuse his peerslike, former Prime Minister Manmohan Singhof treason without batting an eyelid. He can tear newspaper headlinesfor example, Congress is a Muslim Partyout of context, gleefully smearing the party which led the nationalist movement for Independence.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi meeting former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and then Congress President Sonia Gandhi, in New Delhi on November 27, 2015. (Photograph: PIB)<a href="http://pibphoto.nic.in/photo//2015/Nov/l2015112773987.jpg"><i><br></i></a>
Prime Minister Narendra Modi meeting former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and then Congress President Sonia Gandhi, in New Delhi on November 27, 2015. (Photograph: PIB)

Also read: Modi Could Have Deflected Rahul’s Yorker, Instead Of Playing All Over It

Modi can use silence as a potent political weapon – silence over mob lynching of Dalits and Muslims, silence over the vicious trolls he follows, silence over a ministerial colleague who publicly felicitates murder convicts. His opponents get completely unsettled by his strategic silences – they are damned if they remain quiet, and damned if they protest too much – either way, the issue gets sharply polarised.

Newspapers and television channels have surrendered, often shouting louder than the loudest propagandist in favour of the rulers. Even the judiciary has been publicly cleaved into partisan camps.

This, then, is the single most critical difference between 1996 and 2019: there was no Modi in 1996, who would have forced the opposing coalition to sustain.

But in 2019, Modi will be the powerful glue for his opponents to stick together – or perish forever!

Two: Rahul-led Congress Is Cheese To Sitaram Kesri’s Chalk

There is a second over-arching reason why the 1996 disaster will not be repeated in 2019 – it’s because the Congress is very different now from what it was then:

  • In 1996, the Congress had keeled over from 244 seats to 140, a clearly defeated party. So it could not make a legitimate claim to return to power. However, in 2019, the Congress could be an 'ascending force', rising from 44 to between 130-150 seats in Lok Sabha. That should give it the moral authority to significantly participate in, or even lead, a coalition government. The anachronism of ‘support from outside’ would be mercifully jettisoned.
  • Sitaram Kesri was an old, weak, impatient provincial leader. He simply did not have the political gravitas to be the commander-in-chief. As opposed to him, Rahul Gandhi is the unchallenged leader of the Congress. He is also young and patient, and has displayed, through word and deed, that he is not aching to jump into South Block. He is not expected to indulge in the ‘Kesri shenanigans, which were primarily responsible for the Gowda and Gujral catastrophes.

Three: 2019 Opposition Coalition Will Be A Deliberate, Congealed Exercise

In 1996, the United Front coalition was a hasty, opportunistic after-thought. It was cobbled together in a matter of hours. As against that, the opposition is slowly, labouriously welding a platform in the run-up to 2019. Massive by-election victories in Gorakhpur, Phulpur, Kairana, Ajmer, Alwar, Gurdaspur and other places are proving to be an optimistic catalyst. Political titans like Sharad Pawar are injecting experience and authority into the process (like the prickly exercise of selecting a joint candidate for Deputy Chairman of the Rajya Sabha). Mayawati displayed a hitherto unknown esprit de corps by sacking, within 24 hours, a senior leader who had said uncharitable things about Rahul Gandhi. HD Kumaraswamy quickly disowned his 1996-styled theatrics of crying and shaming his coalition partner; again, within 24 hours, he publicly acknowledged his folly, and hailed Rahul as a worthy prime ministerial aspirant.

Congress President Rahul Gandhi greets Karnataka CM HD Kumaraswamy, as Mayawati and Sitaram Yechury look on.&nbsp;
Congress President Rahul Gandhi greets Karnataka CM HD Kumaraswamy, as Mayawati and Sitaram Yechury look on. 

Also read: Dear PM Modi, GDP Is Gross Economic Jumla For Campaign 2019

While these are still tiny straws in the wind, they do throw up the promise of an evolving, cohesive narrative, very different from the noise and intrigue of 1996.

The final conclusion, therefore, is inescapable: even if the 2019 poll arithmetic turns up a clone of the 1996 hung house, its chemical glue will be entirely different, which could surprise the naysayers.

Raghav Bahl is the co-founder and chairman of Quintillion Media, including BloombergQuint. He is the author of two books, viz ‘Superpower?: The Amazing Race Between China’s Hare and India’s Tortoise’, and ‘Super Economies: America, India, China & The Future Of The World’.